The appearance of propriety

Posted: Apr 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Dr. Tom Coburn, late of the House of Representatives, citizen of Oklahoma, now senator from his state, is a controversial enough figure by himself. Contrast him with the rest of Congress, and sparks fly. An OB/GYN physician in good standing, he has entered, as a second career, an ethically challenged profession. There, with his plain speaking and straight dealing, and his personal commitment to term limits, he casts every appearance of propriety.

So of course he has "ethics" troubles.

You see, Dr. Coburn insists on continuing to practice medicine. He did this when he was in the House. He flew home on weekends, holidays, and whenever he could squeeze in the time. He charged enough to pay his staff and keep his insurance up to date, but did his work without paying himself. This kept him pretty much in the clear with the House.

But the Senate is different. Based on a 1998 law and the insurmountable weight of decades-old tradition, the Senate Ethics Committee ruled that the doctor must close his practice by the end of September. They see a "conflict of interest."

To some, working two jobs is worse than a conflict of interest ? moonlighting on one's constituency and one's important work in Washington, D.C. is a sign of disrespect to one's station and those one serves.

Coburn doesn't see it that way. Neither do his constituents. "Every campaign stop I made in Oklahoma over a six-month period," Coburn recently explained, "I said I have every intention to continue to be a physician." And his constituents nevertheless voted him in ? and not as an incumbent, but as a first-time Senator. In the House, he had been a hard worker ? hard enough to make his opponents wish he'd just go away. In one instance, opponents decried that Coburn had "taken over the House," when, bucking his own leadership, he blocked a pork-laden agriculture bill by offering over 100 amendments.

But still he found time to deliver 480 babies.

Coburn just makes other senators look bad. He works too hard. He's not one of the play-along/get-along gang on the Hill.

The real key to understanding Coburn, however, is his dedication to the old republican idea of a citizen legislature. Politics should not be a lifetime career, he argues. One enters politics for a limited time, does one's duty, and goes back to one's . . . life. This is how, in politics, he "keeps it real." Coburn has often expressed the opinion that by delivering babies and dealing with his constituents in an extra-political fashion, he serves them better. And he applies his principles first to himself. He self-limited his own stay in the House and left after three terms. Contrast this with D.C.'s standard practice, which it to apply principles to everyone else first, and only to oneself if one cannot in any way avoid it.

Unsurprisingly, those who believe in a permanent, professional legislature can't grasp Coburn's notions. To them, politics is the career, the most important career. Nothing higher to aspire to. Anything else is second best.

Coburn sees this thinking as a trap. The longer you stay away from your station as a citizen, the longer you walk the halls of the capitol, the more likely you will see your constituents as living a second-best life and their station as second class.

A total inversion of values, in other words.

The Senate's ethics rules enforce these pernicious values, unfortunately. They make a doctor give up his practice for a number of years ? which might even take one out of that profession forever. Doctors must keep in practice. There's always more to learn. The Senate's prohibition basically tells anyone who takes his or her career seriously, don't serve your country.

And here's the clue to the whole mess. Politicians are obsessive about the appearance of impropriety, while the actual corruption steams full speed ahead. Making the federal government less powerful would be the best method of reducing actual corruption. There are just too many ways of bribery to think that legislators, willing to sell their vote or their influence over the massive bureaucracy, can be regulated enough to prevent it.

And the ethics rules make little sense. For example, the wife of the Senate leader can lobby the Senate. It happened with former Senator Tom Daschle and his wife. Other U.S. Senators have relatives ? sons, daughters, wives, husbands, brother-in-laws ? lobbying the Congress. Lucrative jobs can be awarded to relatives. Or even the occasional cattle future. Or sweet IPO deal.

Meanwhile, the Senate Ethics junta is hard-line against the corrupt appearance of a doctor delivering babies. At cost.

Coburn does have some support in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a surgeon who gave up his practice to serve, is sympathetic, if noncommittal. Rules Chairman Trent Lott warns that a rule change is difficult, but that, nevertheless, "we'll see if there's a way we can do it." Rick Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, offers his direct judgment: "I don't see a conflict of interest in delivering babies."

Coburn also has a fair amount of support outside. Liberal host of Crossfire, Paul Begala, came down on the side of common sense, for instance. "You ought to be able to practice medicine or at least be a gynecoogist, OB/GYN, like Dr. Coburn, and deliver babies. . . . I hope Dr. Coburn persuades his Republican colleagues to give him a waiver on this. I think it would be a good thing."

But on the "inside," things seem more partisan. Debbie Stabenow, Senator from Michigan and secretary of the Democratic conference, ran up the blue flag: "Republicans want to change the rules of the game. They want new ethics rules for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. They want the nuclear option. Now they want this."

Well, considering the nature of the issue, Democrats as well as Republicans should rethink the nature of the rules that guide them. (If they lack for guidance, they could read my Common Sense e-letter.) And Sen. Stabenow might want to think again what she really wants. Coburn is an independent voice, and taking away his real-world outlet will only mean that he'd spend more time on the Hill.

Or, as Coburn himself has said, "There's going to be a whole lot of heck to pay up here because if I am working up here five solid days a week, I'm going to create all sorts of mischief."

Though Coburn's mischief is precisely what the country needs, the Senate should follow his lead, and put principles first. And it would probably amount to the best health care program Congress cooks up in the next six years.